Penn State aims to set an example by planting cover crops this fall

University Park, Pa. -- Seeking to be a role model for farmers in the state and across the Northeast, Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences will undertake aerial seeding of a cover crop in late August or early September.

This year a cover crop mixture of winter canola, yellow sweet clover and crimson clover will be applied aerially on 200 acres of corn and soybeans located northeast of the University Park campus in Centre County. Cover crops offer great benefits because their roots prevent soil particles from being washed away by late fall, winter and spring runoff. Also, they lock up carbon and they take up nutrients such as nitrogen.

Previous to areal seeding, farmers could not get a cover crop planted before the onset of cold weather -- crops such as soybeans and corn often remain in the field until late November, said Glen Cauffman, manager of Penn State farm operations.

"Aerial seeding allows a cover crop to be planted before an existing crop is harvested," he said. "That way, when the corn or soybeans are cut and removed and the sunlight gets to the ground, the cover crop already has a start. Aerial seeding is a very 'green' thing to do and if it were widely practiced in Pennsylvania it could have major environmental benefits."

Although aerial agricultural applications such as crop dusting are widely practiced in the Midwest and South, according to Cauffman, they are relatively rare in Pennsylvania. With the exception of spraying compounds to kill gypsy moth caterpillars, Keystone State residents rarely see airplanes involved in crop work.
From an ecological point of view, cover crops are a no-brainer, said Sjoerd Duiker, associate professor of soil management. The more farmers can keep living plant roots in the soils, he said, the better. Cover crops fill a hole in the crop rotation.

"We try to remedy having bare soil from November to May," he said. "Growing roots help to improve soil structure and stimulate microbial activity. So the soil improves and there is less erosion."

Duiker said cover crops are especially needed on dairy farm fields where farmers periodically apply liquid manure during the winter months.

"It is much better to apply manure on living vegetation than on bare soil," he said. "Cover crops actively take up nutrients, prevent nitrates and other nutrients from leeching into ground water and reduce the runoff of excess nutrients."

Duiker would like to see more aerial seeding of cover crops in Pennsylvania.

"It's not done on a large scale here and there are not many service providers around because there's not a great demand," he said. "Penn State is trying to set an ecological example in this case."

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Last Updated November 18, 2010